City Life

Person of Interest: Dennis Burke has stories to tell

One of Madison's best trial attorneys hangs it up

One of the best newspapers stories ever published in Madison was written not by a journalist, but by a lawyer with a poet’s soul. His name is Dennis Burke.

The story—from 1996—was a Capital Times front-page obituary of a tavern, which tells you one thing you need to know about Denny Burke. There are others.

Burke, 69, left the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office at the end of 2015—after some four decades—without the curtain call he deserved. Burke didn’t want it. Still, some took notice. His friend Neil Heinen gave Burke a nice nod in the February issue of this magazine.

When one of Madison’s best trial attorneys—a lover of literature, good beer, the law and some of its more colorful practitioners—decides to hang it up, the city deserves to know.

In hindsight, it’s good there wasn’t more fanfare. Burke couldn’t stay retired. People should have seen it coming. Within weeks, Burke had entered private law practice, joining his son-in-law, Rick Coad. The pace is less grueling than during his years of duty as a public defender, but Burke is again trying cases. The lawyer, whose career includes eleven successful murder defenses, is back where he belongs, in a courtroom.

The funny thing is, he never wanted to be a lawyer. When Burke finally wandered into law school, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he hated it.

“It was all trusts, estates and contracts,” Burke says. “It all had to do with money changing hands.”

Bored, Burke attended class sporadically and considered dropping out. He stuck with it, and eventually discovered there was more to the law than contractual fine print. A friend suggested Burke volunteer at the Legal Services Center, a kind of precursor to a free walk-in legal clinic.

“I learned that the law could be used to help people’s lives,” Burke says. The clients were women going through divorces, and students battling landlords over security deposits. “I realized it wasn’t just cases in a book. And I liked the action.”

It didn’t hurt that Legal Services was located adjacent to the Pinckney Street Hide-Away, a no-frills tavern in the shadow of the state Capitol building. The tavern drew a wonderfully eclectic clientele. If Legal Services helped Burke put a human face on the law, the Hide-Away expanded that vision.

“There were big shots, beatniks and bums,” Burke wrote in his 1996 eulogy for the tavern, “all blended together in a weird human gumbo. The Hide-Away was the real Madison Club.”

In 1977, Legal Services more or less morphed into the state-run Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office, and Burke went along. By then, Burke was hooked. “I loved trying cases,” he says. He liked not having to talk money with clients—they didn’t have any. The state was paying.

“It was a good fit from the get-go,” Burke says. “I liked my clients. Every client I represented, their life was a short story. I like telling short stories.”
He had a gift for the courtroom, one he enhanced by studying past greats like Earl Rogers, who defended Clarence Darrow when Darrow was charged with jury tampering.

Burke’s first criminal trial put him against a young prosecutor, John Burr, who would become a lifelong friend and adversary. On the witness stand, a police officer was asked to rate the “truth and veracity” of Burke’s client, who was charged with sexual assault.

“Terrible,” the cop said.

Burke, cross-examining, said, “Tell me, officer, what does ‘veracity’ mean?”

The cop sat there blinking.

The jury hung twice, and Burke’s client pleaded to a lesser charge.

“They don’t talk about it in law school,” Burke says, “but it’s kind of like street fighting. I liked it.”

In 1978, Burke defended a 20-year-old Stoughton High School graduate named Rebecca Fessenden, charged with killing her infant son. Prosecutors had Fessenden’s confession on tape. During the trial, under Burke’s questioning, Fessenden said she’d lied on the tape to protect her boyfriend. The jury was out only 35 minutes before returning a not-guilty verdict. The next day’s newspaper account said Fessenden “grabbed her attorney, Dennis Burke, and hugged him at the counsel table for several minutes.”

Burke, who lives on the near west side with Kathy, his wife of 45 years, and Mickey, his 125-pound dog, never regretted staying with the public defender’s office. “I never wanted to make a million dollars as a lawyer,” he says.

It was March 2015 when Burke began thinking he might benefit from a change of scenery. He’d brought some Guinness into the office for St. Patrick’s Day, only to be scolded the next day about bringing beer onto state property.

Where was the joy in that? It brought to mind what Burke wrote 20 years ago in his Hide-Away piece. “It was fun, is what it was.” He could have been talking about the tavern, the law or the life.

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